Hemelt: School naming rights conversation worth Board exploration

Published 12:02 am Saturday, March 12, 2016

The ideas thrown out for possible public school names last week were equal parts humorous and surprising.

How about Shell Norco Elementary School or L’OBSERVATEUR Elementary School? What about Marathon Elementary School or the Danny Becnel Attorney at Law Elementary School?

Those were some of the ideas kicked about by Russ Wise and Gerald J. Keller during last week’s St. John the Baptist Parish School Board meeting.

The suggestions were a small part of a larger conversation driven by Wise concerning alternate sources of revenue for the public school district.

“Since we don’t have a great deal of money available to us, even in the best of times, and we’re having to rebuild Lake Pontchartrain Elementary, perhaps we could offer the naming rights of that school to the highest bidder,” he said.

To even consider going down such a road, Wise said his research indicated the School Board would need to go through the St. John District Attorney’s Office or Louisiana Attorney General’s Office to seek an opinion on if the process is legal.

“As our attorney has told me a couple of times, he can’t find anything to prevent us from doing it,” Wise said, adding the School Board must also ask the administration to contact local legislators about presenting a local bill into the legislative process.

“I like the idea of St. John the Baptist Parish Schools being first with new ideas,” Wise said. “I like to see some outside-the-box thinking. We keep going back to the well every time we need money, but there may be pots of money out there we can tap into while we make friends among the business community.”

When asked for his thoughts on the idea, Superintendent Kevin George offered tepid support, adding he really didn’t know what to say.

“I think it is definitely outside-the-box thinking and something we should definitely get our attorney to seek an Attorney General’s opinion to see if it is indeed possible,” George said.

If approached, School Board Member Rodney B. Nicholas said a minimum price and defined timeframe was needed for all contract naming proposals.

Keller suggested the legal questions were unnecessary because the School District previously entered into advertising deals for scoreboards and athletic fields without issue.

School Board Member Albert Burl asked administrators how an increase in naming rights revenue impacts the school district’s Minimum Foundation Program funding, a formula Louisiana adopts annually to allocate money to school districts on a per-pupil basis.

Administrators said if the funds were considered local revenue, they would negatively impact Minimum Foundation Program funding two years later.

“I don’t pay lawyers to tell me I can’t do something, I pay them to tell me how I can do it,” Wise said before a vote on his proposal. “Once again, let’s think outside the box a little. Let’s explore other possibilities instead of just going repeatedly to the voters, saying ‘give me more, give me more, give me more.’ If we can build or we can restore or we can rearrange a school with somebody else’s money and we don’t take that opportunity, then shame on us.”

Wise’s motion to explore naming rights options was ultimately defeated after School Board Members Burl, Keller, Phillip Johnson, Shawn Wallace and Keith Jones voted down the proposal.

Wise did have the support of Patrick H. Sanders, Sherry DeFrancesch and Nicholas.

School Board members Clarence Triche and Russell Jack were not present and did not vote.

There are three tax-related elections on the ballot for St. John the Baptist Parish voters next month, including a measure by the School Board seeking an additional .25 percent sales tax in St. John.

Parish voters are also being asked to renew property taxes for the health unit and library system.

We’re all being asked to keep giving or give more. Simply taking a look at outside-the-box funding sources should have been the action of School Board members.

Open minds are wonderful things, especially considering School Board members want voters to keep their minds open about next month’s new tax election.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.